English 561A: Discourses of Science, Race, and Health

Instructor: Margery Fee
Section: 001

Term: 1
Meets: Wednesdays 10:00am-1:00pm

The history of “scientific racism” provides a salutary lesson on how scientific discourses are interwoven with broader and more popular ones.  The course will undertake a brief history of Western discourses around racial difference from the 18th century to the present, showing how some scientists (from philologists to geneticists) became involved in constituting the “truth” of racial difference and white supremacy.  At the same time, many writers and scientists also worked to discredit race thinking (for example, Franz Boas, in his work on skull measurement). Nonetheless, despite the 1963 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (in particular its affirmation that “any doctrine of racial differentiation or superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”), the rise of genetics produced a new set of controversial racializing assumptions. Social Darwinism morphed into Sociobiology, as Richard Dawkins envisioned humans as robots motivated by “selfish” genes.  One of the discourses fronted in the course will be science fiction. The opposition between the perceived truth of science writing and the perceived untruth of science fiction writing will be a focus of attention.

The course will allow for a variety of approaches in student research papers, including close readings of fiction or of scientific writing (or a comparison across these genres), examinations of the use of science fiction by science studies writers (e.g. Haraway and Latour), or descriptions of the histories of certain metaphors or tropes, particularly the alien as (implicitly racialized/diseased human) Other. We will read fiction writers such as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Philip K. Dick, James R. Tiptree Jr., Olivia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Nalo Hopkinson, as well as scientific and science studies material.  Students will submit weekly informal writing assignments, give one in-class oral presentation, assess two draft papers written by their classmates, and submit one research paper (15-20 pages).

Some suggested reading: Baum, Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race; Chow-White Peter, Race after the Internet; Duster, Troy, Backdoor to Eugenics; Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man; Hacking, Ian, The Social Construction of What?; Lee, Sandra Soo-jin, Race in the Genomic Age; Lewontin, Richard, Steven Rose and Leon K. Kamin, Not in Our Genes:  Biology, Ideology and Human Nature; Squier, Susan Merrill, Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine; Twine, France Winddance and Charles A. Gallagher, eds. Retheorizing Race and Whiteness in the 21st Century: Changes and Challenges